Friday 12 August 2022 10:43 PM Confessions of a man of letters: Distinguished literary figure A.N. Wilson's ... trends now

Friday 12 August 2022 10:43 PM Confessions of a man of letters: Distinguished literary figure A.N. Wilson's ... trends now
Friday 12 August 2022 10:43 PM Confessions of a man of letters: Distinguished literary figure A.N. Wilson's ... trends now

Friday 12 August 2022 10:43 PM Confessions of a man of letters: Distinguished literary figure A.N. Wilson's ... trends now

The young man peers at me through his Perspex mask. 'May I ask,' he ventures, 'what is your relation to . . .'

'We were . . .' The word 'married' refuses to be spoken, not least because, all these years later, it seems so improbable. On the other hand, nor can I say we are merely friends.

I am led into a small tent which has been erected in the garden of an Oxford care home. It is too cold for sitting out, but we are in the high days of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, my former wife, Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones, one of the most distinguished English scholars of her generation, is being trundled through a French window into the freezing tent.

She has been dressed in a straw hat covered with flowers. Her hair, poking from beneath, is wiry and grey. The hat lacks any dignity.

I think back to the start of our romance. Were those two naked bodies, entwined in one another's love half a century ago, truly the same as the two bodies sitting opposite one another in this grotesque plastic garden tabernacle? The old lady in the flowery hat peers blankly at the visored old codger — me.

'And you live? Where? Remind me.'

'London.'

'Of course.'

A few days ago, Katherine had been awake all night, texting our two daughters. They had interpreted these frantic, incoherent messages to mean that she feared I was dead. That was the reason for my visit today, to reassure her.

Yet, when I read the messages, it was clear to me that they did not concern my death. 'Andrew Wilson gone — afraid gone.' And later — 'Better for him, better off now. He NEVER wanted to be here . . .'

Intoxicating new life: Popular and prolific English novelist, biographer, historian and newspaper columnist A.N. Wilson pictured outside the Spectator’s London office

Intoxicating new life: Popular and prolific English novelist, biographer, historian and newspaper columnist A.N. Wilson pictured outside the Spectator's London office

In the solitude of her locked room she was reliving the misery of abandonment 30-something years ago, abandonment by one who had promised to be with her, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

Had I kept the promise, she would not now be in a care home. She would be simply at home.

Through my Perspex mask, I repeat what I have been told by the care home people, that she has been reading John Betjeman's poems aloud to the other inmates. Her face looks puzzled by the information.

Nigella, the dish I so desired – but who only ate mash!

In all the time I knew her well, Nigella Lawson, destined to be famed as a gastronomic genius, never ate anything except mashed potato and never mentioned the subject of food.

This was in the late Seventies and early Eighties. She was one of the younger writers we enlisted when I was literary editor of the Spectator, and I formed an embarrassing crush on her.

Nigella was kind about this, and we used to spend hours, sitting in Bertorelli's in Charlotte Street, staring at one another while she prodded at a plate of mashed potatoes. We never drank anything stronger than Ribena.

 

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'You live where? Remind me.'

I recite one of our favourites, 'Myfanwy At Oxford', and her lips seem to be moving; the artificial flowers on the straw hat wobble in what might be recognition. 'Did you write it?'

'No. You remember old Betjeman? We spent an evening with him once.'

'You live where, exactly?'

This conversation happened the best part of a year ago. Now, when I sit beside her, she stares blankly. She would not have a clue where London was, or what a poem is, or who I am.

I was in my second year as an undergraduate at Oxford when I became friendly with Katherine. Ten years older than me, she was a Fellow of Somerville College.

At 19, I was vaguely thinking of becoming a Catholic priest and that summer had arranged a stay at the Birmingham Oratory, a community of Catholic priests, founded in 1849 by John Henry Newman. When I mentioned this to Katherine, she suddenly gave me her mother's telephone number in Brum.

'If you like, you could ring me there, when you leave the Oratory.'

Today the Birmingham Oratory is apparently thriving. In 1970, however, it really appeared to be on its last legs.

Meals were served in silence. One of the fathers would bolt down his food ten minutes before the others and then read aloud to them as they munched. In that particular week it was Antonia Fraser's Mary Queen Of Scots.

On my last day we trooped into the refectory for my final dose of Lady Antonia. The odour of fish pie appalled, but having spent a decade at boarding schools, I did not take the rank pong as a warning.

Before leaving Brum, I had tea with Katherine's mother — and suddenly felt very ill. The worst food poisoning ever suffered before or since in my life was starting.

Some days later, as delirium receded, I awoke in the Duncan-Joneses' spare bedroom. An earnest young medic was telling the two women that I should have been in hospital.

But I gradually regained strength, and by the end of three days, a strange intimacy had grown up between the three of us.

I soon realised that any thought of following in Newman's footsteps as a celibate priest had been discarded.

Five months later, in February 1971, I lost my virginity — and our first child was conceived — at the White Hart Hotel in Lincoln. Katherine had taken me there for a meeting of the Tennyson Society.

The trembling excitement of that hotel hour when we had retired to bed, the beauty of the woman beside me, with her long, thick, golden hair, the ecstatic joy of it . . .

I was astounded, a few years ago, when one of my contemporaries told me that, in the first year or so of my marriage, friends regarded us as exemplars of perfect love together. In fact, in the first two years we spent hours and hours weeping, and wishing we had not had to get married.

I can still hear Katherine moaning, gulping with sorrow, only months after the wedding: 'Oh, we should never have married! I'd n-never have insisted, if it had not been for Mother!'

I had become a married man at the age of 20 — while still an undergraduate — and a father of two children by the time I was 24. My wife was a 30-year-old Oxford academic, an expert in 16th-century literature.

From my side, while never losing the sense that we had a marriage of minds, there was a boiling anger. How could a woman of 30 make someone who was little more than a teenager adopt the responsibilities of a husband and father?

A.N. Wilson with wife Katherine (above left) in 1983 along with friends Allan Mclean and Alexandra Artley, who had all returned from a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Oxford Movement

A.N. Wilson with wife Katherine (above left) in 1983 along with friends Allan Mclean and Alexandra Artley, who had all returned from a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Oxford Movement

As far as I was concerned, Katherine Duncan-Jones had stolen my youth, my experience of student life, my chance of developing an emotional spectrum, with several girlfriends, before settling on the right moment to marry.

Rather than studying full-time for my final exams, I had a baby in my arms and lived miles from colleges or libraries. Katherine — then on sabbatical — was writing a book, which meant I needed to help out domestically.

I was lucky to get a Second.

Despite my average degree, I ended up teaching undergraduates at both New College and St Hugh's for seven years. But I was never a scholar, and had long since started writing novels in my spare time.

My wife, by total contrast, was through and through a don and more wedded to Oxford than she ever was to me.

Nigella Lawson, food author and writer who wrote for The Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, The Observer and The Times Literary Supplement, and penned a food column for Vogue in the 1990s

Nigella Lawson, food author and writer who wrote for The Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, The Observer and The Times Literary Supplement, and penned a food column for Vogue in the 1990s 

I was, in other words, stuck — until the whole focus and direction of my life changed in the course of a single day. The ringing of our telephone had interrupted my self-pitying reflections. On the line was Alexander Chancellor, then editor of the Spectator.

'It's a long shot, I know, and you're probably much too grand . . .' There followed what sounded like interference on the line. I would soon come to recognise this noise as that of Alexander laughing. '. . . but I wonder whether you'd consider becoming our Literary Editor.'

An intoxicating new life was about to begin.

I remember overhearing one of the young women who worked at the Spectator asking another: 'Do you fancy Andrew?' After some humming and ha-ing, she replied: 'I can imagine tearing off his three-piece suit only to find another three-piece suit underneath.'

Well, some time during my first year as the Spectator's literary editor, I awoke in the dark with a woman who had discovered that there was no three-piece suit underneath.

A. N. Wilson, Andrew Norman Wilson, with his book 'Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker' at the Dorchester Literary Festival in Dorset in October 2017

A. N. Wilson, Andrew Norman Wilson, with his book 'Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker' at the Dorchester Literary Festival in Dorset in October 2017

For the past 12 months or so I had been working in London, returning to my family in Oxford at weekends. I'd had the most ridiculously enjoyable year, where almost every other day ended in some crowded publishing office, holding a glass of warm white (so many of us then, at the Spectator, drank on a positively Slavic scale), while we launched someone or other's book.

Obsessed by my unrequited love

During a summer of travel before going up to Oxford, I had booked an Italian course at the Institute in Florence, and on my first day there I fell in love.

I was unaware that this particular obsession, lasting two decades, would sometimes threaten my sanity itself.

It was her face which started it, very pale, framed with almost black short hair and the brightest blue-green stars for eyes and a broad laugh. My feelings about her were and are too strong to be described.

She would go up to Somerville College, Oxford, and be my contemporary for three years. Even after my marriage, I could not stop loving (hopelessly, platonically) the beautiful Somervillian — who was destined to die in her early 40s.

My wife Katherine also had a deep yearning for someone else. While we were

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